Knoxville (WVLT) - Angioplasty is the top treatment to prevent heart attacks and give chest pain relief.
1.2 million angioplasties are done in the United States each year, but a new study says they may be unnecessary.
Medical Reporter Jessa Goddard spoke to local doctors about the finding that drugs may be just as effective.
Angioplasty is one of the most common practices in heart care, which is why the results are so stunning.
Researchers say it gives only slight and temporary relief from chest pain, which is the main reason it's done.
The study involves nearly 2,300 patients who had substantial blockages, typically in two arteries, but were medically stable.
They had an average of 10 chest pain episodes a week.
All were treated with medicines that improve chest pain and heart and artery health.
Half had angioplasty, half did not. And the groups had similar rates of heart attack and death.
"And we've known for a long time that artery blockages can remain stable for many, many years and don't get worse. And, in fact, many studies show that if your cholesterol isn't treated real well, artery blockages can get better," Dr. Robert Martyn, from East Tennessee Heart Consultants.
The study's authors say angioplasty fixes only one artery at a time, whereas drugs affect all the arteries.
And, they say, the clogs treated with angioplasty are not the most dangerous kind.
In the study, only one-third of people treated with drugs ultimately needed angioplasty.
Which raises concerns, considering safety worries about heart stents used to keep arteries open.
"The problem is, we've always known ever since we started putting them in, that there was a risk of clots developing in more suddenly. The older stents, their risk was gone within about a month," says Dr. Martyn.
Angioplasty has come under fire recently because of emerging evidence that popular drug-coated stents can raise the risk of blood clots months later.
But this is the first study to question whether to do the procedure at all.
"I think the newer stents that are forecast to coming out offer a lot of benefits and will get around a lot of the controversy that we see with the present ones," Dr. Martyn says.
Angioplasty costs between 30 and 40 thousand dollars. While the drugs used in the study are almost all available in generic form.
Doctor Robert Martyn says whether to undergo angioplasty or take medication should always depend on the individual patient and his or her symptoms.
Angioplasties are done on a non-emergency basis and remain the top treatment for people having a heart attack, or worsening symptoms.